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Madison Avenue and the Hipsters

The Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ improbable success in the early rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual championship basketball tournament recently prompted us to tune into prime-time network television for the first time in many years, and the experience has left us struck by the ubiquity of hipster culture. It’s not so much the tattoos and over-sized shorts and tonsorial strangeness of so many of the players, although that is a jarring contrast to the clean-cut and defiantly old-fashioned cagers we recall from the days of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, but rather all those unshaven young fellows with their shirts hanging out who populate the advertisements.
Our limited television viewing is usually devoted to the late-night fare on the low-budget ultra-high-frequency stations, where the programming is dominated by ancient sit-coms and the advertising is mostly on behalf of bail bondsmen, thrift stores, pawn shops, workers’ compensation lawyers, and other businesses catering to a lower-class audience that can’t or won’t shell out for cable’s over-priced fare, so this development took us by surprise. Madison Avenue’s enthusiastic embrace of what used to be called the “slacker” type also seemed somewhat counter-intuitive, as we would not expect the proudly unambitious sorts portrayed in the spots to be the likely consumers of the pricey goods being pitched. Having fashionably disheveled youngsters in the fast food and beer commercials make some sense, as those products are easily affordable by the low-paid denizens of parents’ basements, but it is a most baffling development that these days even most slovenly youngsters are apparently well-equipped with the latest electronic gizmos, sporty cars, and retirement investment plans.
Perhaps the target audience for these high-end advertisements is not the latte-sipping bohemian but instead the hard-working and dutifully conformist company man who quietly yearns for the supposed freedom of the skate-boarding and panhandling youngsters he passes by on his way home from a grueling day at the office. Simply buy our product, the ads seem to promise, and you too can be a youthful rebel and strike a blow against mindless consumerism.
This theory would explain the presence of Iggy Pop, of all people, in an advertisement for Chrysler automobiles, of all things. Pop was once the epitome of punk rock menace, prowling the stage of seedy venues with his emaciated and scarred torso proudly bared as he sang his anthemic “Lust For Life,” snarling its memorable refrain of “Of course I’ve had it in the ear before,” but that was before the punk rockers starring in today’s commercials were born. Only someone edging in the Chrysler demographic is likely to have the slightest idea who Pop is, much less recognize his weathered visage in an advertisement too cool to mention his name, and his tacit endorsement can only be meant to suggest that his equally well-heeled contemporaries can reclaim some of their lost rebelliousness by purchasing a car once stereotypically associated with middle class suburbia. Although we retain a certain fondness for Pop’s music, and cherish memories of Wichita’s original punk rock band, The Lemurs, performing a heartfelt rendition of his “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the ploy leaves us even less interested in owning a Chrysler.
We are disinclined to judge people by their apparel, and indeed are in no position to do so, as the dress code here at The Central Standard Times is notoriously lax, but this celebration of hipster culture has disquieting political implications. Several American cities have banked their futures on an economic theory of the “creative class” which holds that a town can do without an industrial base or noisome children so long as it has enough espresso bars to attract the cool kids, a notion so convoluted  that even its most famous proponent is now expressing doubts about it, and even such a stalwart base of rock-ribbed conservatism as Wichita has devoted a couple of city-subsidized neighborhoods to the hipsters. Worse yet, if the hipster is held up as a social ideal it cannot benefit a Republican party that is routinely and properly associated with its office-working, lawn-mowing, child-bearing antithesis Liberal politics is as essential an accessory to the modern hipster as rectangular spectacles, three days of stubble, and an ironic sense of humor. Perhaps it should also be pointed out that Chrysler was bailed out by Obama, with the bond-holding retirees and politically-unconnected dealers getting the worse of it, so Chrysler might enjoy some hipness after all.
Still, we find some hope out there for the squares. The Wheatshockers’ board-banging forward Carl Hall has shorn his dreadlocks and gone with a slightly Urkel-esque buzz-cut ‘do for the tournament, and now his team finds itself in the “Sweet 16” with a good chance at making the “Elite Eight.” It might be mere coincidence, but we doubt it.

— Bud Norman

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